In December of last year, I played in my first competitive Modern event: Grand Prix Portland. It was local to me, and I dug deep into Modern to prepare. I’ve stayed absorbed since.

A year has nearly passed. So much has happened to Modern in 2019, it amazes me to think back over it all. We gained staples that hadn’t been printed a year ago, and lost others. Four cards have been banned and one unbanned. The gameplay of thriving decks is very different from what we had.

It’s been a dramatic journey. I want to look back and understand all the changes.

Linear Drag Racing

Modern was a very linear at the beginning of 2019. The top decks were focused strategies that, for the most part, pursued a singular idea. Krark-Clan Ironworks was the bogeyman of the format, and half of us didn’t really know how it worked. It had one basic plan: recur dinky artifacts with Scrap Trawler, get paid. Guilds of Ravnica gave us Modern’s other top dog with the printing of Arclight Phoenix, and it also had one idea: cantrip through your deck, get paid.

KCI dominated on win percentage. Though it was only around for one Modern Grand Prix in 2019, Oakland, KCI comprised half of that top 8. Its prevalence was held back only by how difficult it was to pilot. The same was not true of Izzet Phoenix. During its tenure in Modern, Arclight Phoenix decks comprised 20% of SCG Open top 8s, and 20.3% on the GP circuit.

Sharing space in competitive events were more linear decks, including Dredge, Hardened Scales, Burn, Tron, and Amulet Titan. Spirits and Humans were more interactive than those, while Grixis Death’s Shadow, Azorius Control, and Rock did their best to keep us all honest. Still, interactive gameplay was relatively sparse at the top tables.

Linear decks are those that pursue their own game plan and mostly ignore their opponent. Their prevalence and dominance in early 2019 provoked a common complaint among Modern players: matches felt more like races than games. Many turned their blame on Faithless Looting, Mox Opal, or Ancient Stirrings for this. The first banning of the year, though, was Krark-Clan Ironworks in late January. Its namesake deck immediately bit the dust and was resigned to Modern’s history as yet another combo deck that was too fast, too hard to interact with, and simply not fun to play against.

But things didn’t really get better. Izzet Phoenix filled the vacuum. Dredge creepily crept a little higher. The field was sown with salt. And yet, no one was prepared for what was coming.

Hogaak Summer

June brought us Modern Horizons. This groundbreaking release was the first set ever to be released straight to Modern, skipping Standard. That idea allowed card designs with unique angles and higher power levels. Wrenn and Six gave Jund new life. Urza, Lord High Artificer gave us a wide space for innovation with artifacts. However, with one particular card, R&D overdid it. Severely.

Enter Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. From the graveyard. Over and over.

A couple of weeks after MH1 became legal, Modern players were dying turn 2 from Altar of Dementia and Hogaak. With Bridge From Below, he could be sacrificed and recast near-endlessly. And the backup plan? Just overkill in the combat step with an enormous zombie horde. And an incidental trampling 8/8. On turn 3 or 4.

Wizards put a stop to this at the beginning of July. Rather, they tried to. 2019’s second Modern banning took Bridge From Below in hopes that disarming the Hogaak deck of its combo finish would re-balance the format. It did not.

Peak Degeneracy

Hogaak Summer sweltered on, this time with straight beatdown. This second version was arguably even better. It was more consistent and couldn’t be contained by disabling Altar or exiling Bridge. Sometimes the beatdown build got there just by attacking with Carrion Feeders and Vengevines.

If you weren’t bringing dedicated countermeasures to the table, you couldn’t compete. Decks with no access to black mana were running four sideboard Leyline of the Void. The splash damage removed Phoenix and Dredge from Modern completely. Summer 2019 was the picture of an oppressed format. If you weren’t built to beat Hogaak, it wasn’t worth playing competitive Modern at all.

And to think how we complained about KCI. Hogaak took degeneracy to another level. That word gets thrown around vaguely, but 2019 clarified its meaning for me. Degeneracy is overpowered linearity. Decks that ignore you and are too strong to stop ruin everything.

I played GP Las Vegas in late August. It was the weekend right before a scheduled B&R announcement. Five Hogaak decks made the top 8. I got on my flight home early Monday morning, happily expecting to land in a post-Hogaak world.

I landed somewhere else. Hogaak got the chop as expected, but another card went with it—2019’s fourth. I stared wide-eyed at the announcement.

Faithless Looting is banned in Modern.

Post-Looting Modern

The Looting banning wasn’t a total surprise. It was the subject of much debate between Modern players in 2019. Faithless Looting was a lynchpin of Hogaak and most of the dominant decks before it. Graveyard strategies generate major advantage by accessing more cards than they have in hand. Looting let them start their engines on turn 1, then gas up by flashing it back later in the game. Some even likened Faithless Looting in Modern to Brainstorm in Legacy.

Still, the Looting banning provoked an enormous uproar. Some thought it was a mistake. Arclight Phoenix decks never rose from Hogaak’s ashes and Dredge dropped out of contention. And yet, as the dust has settled, so have the objections. We’ve been playing in an entirely new Modern since the August B&R, and I think it is beautiful.

Alongside the banning of Faithless Looting and Hogaak, a surprise unbanning occurred. Modern players were given Stoneforge Mystic for the first time in the format’s history. Stoneforge hasn’t shaken the format, but is emblematic of our new landscape. She’s a powerful, but fair creature that’s easy to interact with. Stoneblade packages are lean and portable. They can be incorporated into a number of shells as one of many angles.

That’s the texture of where we are now. We started 2019 with stark lines between single-plan decks. Now we’re playing a lot of interactive, flexible decks that look for value advantage over speed. Without Faithless Looting, those are viable tactics.

Present Moment

Throne of Eldraine added some extremely powerful cards to Modern, but only Once Upon a Time promotes linear strategies. I have serious concerns about Oko, Thief of Crowns, but otherwise I’m excited by how much the metagame is changing.

Bant lists are appearing, some midrange, and some control. Looking at the top 16 lists from GP Columbus, there’s a Stoneblade strategy (Jacob Powell, 11th) reminiscent of Legacy, but mixed with snow synergies to capitalize on Ice Fang Coatl. Bant planeswalker packages (usually Oko and Teferi, Time Raveler) are appearing in places as unexpected as Druid Combo (Kyle Boggemes, 13th).

Looking towards decks with larger metagame shares, Death’s Shadow is performing well. At the beginning of 2019, Grixis Death’s Shadow was among the better decks, but builds didn’t fluctuate a lot because they had to handle the speed of the other contenders. Now, Jund and four-color Shadow decks are showing up with many variations. Because Shadow decks aren’t linear and they’re not under the same amount of pressure as they were earlier in the year, there’s more opportunity to get creative.

Urza Decks

The whole space of Urza decks is entirely new this year. We’ve seen Thopter-Foundry Whirza, Paradoxical Outcome Urza, and now we’re all experiencing the shifting phenomenon that is the Urza Midrange deck. What started as a pure midrange deck added a Thopter-Foundry package with Whir of Invention for a combo closer. When that became popular, a Karn, the Great Creator package became the finisher of choice due to its strength in the mirror.

This deck fluctuates so easily because it is not a linear deck. Entire themes move in and out to adapt to other decks as those decks adapt to Urza. It’s a fun time to be experimenting in Modern. I’ve been working on this Urza deck and trying more controlling directions for it.

Urza Charm, Urchin Colley Test Deck 12/7/19

Creatures (9)
Brazen Borrower
Gilded Goose
Urza, Lord High Artificer

Spells (31)
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Cryptic Command
Archmage’s Charm
Metallic Rebuke
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Engineered Explosives
Mishra’s Bauble
Mox Opal
Witching Well
Lands (20)
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Breeding Pool
Mystic Sanctuary
Watery Grave
Snow-Covered Forest
Snow-Covered Island

Sideboard (15)
Assassin’s Trophy
Damping Sphere
Drown in the Loch
Fatal Push
Nihil Spellbomb
Pithing Needle

Knowing that Death’s Shadow and Amulet Titan are the most successful adversaries for the Urza Midrange deck, I’ve been trying Archmage’s Charm. Countermagic is potent against Amulet, Charm can steal Death’s Shadows, and you don’t waste your mana holding up Cancel when you can turn it into end-step Divination. I think Archmage’s Charm is underrated right now, and a more controlling Urza deck has potential.

Oko’s Influence

Losing Looting was a gift. Slowing Modern down a turn and taking the power level of linear decks down a step has breathed new life into the format. My biggest concern is Oko, Thief of Crowns. While beatable, he is homogenizing the format. Blue decks are incentivized to splash green for him, and green to splash blue. Not playing him when you can is usually a bad choice. Modern is still unsolved, but its movement is all around Oko.

2019 has been a rough journey, but we’re ending the year in a promising place. I’ll be playing all the Modern I can at Magic Fest Portland this year, and look forward to what’s coming in 2020.

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